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THEATER: Ventura County | NOTES

Work and Play

Musical entertains with witty on-the-job tales.

July 02, 1998|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Life on the job is the theme of "Working," a musical compiled and co-written by Stephen Schwartz. Based on the best-selling book of interviews by Chicago columnist Studs Terkel, the show is almost a revue, as each worker tells his or her story.

Playing at the Conejo Players Theater for the next few weekend matinees, it's easily the most entertaining show in town, and a highlight of the year.

Charles Padilla, making his directing debut with the group, has gathered a cast of 14, most playing multiple roles. Their speeches are out of Terkel's book. The catchy and intelligent songs were composed by Schwartz, Micki Grant, Craig Carnelia, James Taylor (yes, that James Taylor), Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, based on those same interviews.

The workers are proud of their jobs, realistic and often witty, and willing to share a few trade secrets from time to time. Tyler Wright choreographed the show (watch for the dancing supermarket clerks), and musical direction is by bandleader Kendra Fry.

The cast consists of Arryck Adams, Erin Bordofsky, Damian Gravino, Tracy Gromko, Tom Hand, April Haney, Fawn Hart, Edward Kendall, David McMoyler, George Peckham, Michael L. Ramirez, Susan Robb, Amy Sullivan and Katy Wright.

One of the "workers" is a prostitute, so the sensitive should plan accordingly.

* "Working" at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through July 18, including July 4, at the Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks. Tickets are $5, at the door only. For information or reservations for the $11 box lunch special, call (805) 495-3715.

"Working" Songwriter: Craig Carnelia was performing his cabaret act at the Manhattan Theatre Club when Stephen Schwartz walked in one night in 1977. Schwartz was well-known as the composer of Broadway shows including "Godspell" and "Pippin." Carnelia, then 26, had appeared for a brief run as The Boy in "The Fantasticks" and was concentrating on writing and performing his own material.

"It was one of the lucky nights of my life," Carnelia said. "[Schwartz] enjoyed my work enough to invite me to work on 'Working.' "

Schwartz had invited several other songwriters to participate.

"He wanted to write the book and direct and be the person in charge," Carnelia said, "but felt that the wide range of characters . . . would be best captured by a variety of different [songwriting] voices."

An early version played in Chicago, and material was added and subtracted before the move to Broadway, where the show opened May 14, 1978. Of his four songs in the final version, Carnelia said he wrote "The Mason" and "Just a Housewife" between the two incarnations.

The show's Broadway run lasted 25 performances, though "Working" subsequently became a favorite of regional, community and college theater groups. Asked why the show failed on Broadway, Carnelia said, "Steve and I agree that we were too long--I believe by half an hour."

But, he adds, "Steve is about the smartest person I've ever worked with. In the year after we opened, he went back to the structuring of the show, and the result is the version that has been playing around the country for the last 18 years--and is the version we probably should have done in the first place."

In the ensuing years, Carnelia wrote music and lyrics for the critically acclaimed off-Broadway production "Three Postcards," the score for the Broadway musical "Is There Life After High School?" and contributed to several revues. In addition to his own cabaret work, his songs have become favorites of several other cabaret singers.

Now Carnelia is collaborating with Marvin Hamlisch and playwright John Guare on a Broadway musical adaptation of "The Sweet Smell of Success." The producers are responsible for "Ragtime" and the recent revival of "Show Boat."

"I had to drop everything for the 2 1/2-year process of getting 'Sweet Smell' together," Carnelia adds, "though I love concert and cabaret performing, and would love to get back to it."

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